No more running away, it's time to embrace 'home'

"So, where's home for you?"

When I was a university student in the United Kingdom, this was a question people often asked me, usually about three questions into our first conversation.

What a tactful and gentle way of putting it, I thought when I first heard this question, adding it to that mental list of other useful dinner table expressions (one of these being "That's fascinating!", even if your companion is not).

It stands in stark contrast to an encounter I had with a really quite lovely elderly British woman who struggled to find the right words, eventually settling for "From where do you... originate?"

Unlike the confrontational "Where are you from", slightly intrusive "Where were you born" or strictly factual "What's your nationality?", "Where's home for you" rolls off the tongue like a scoop of ice cream from a vendor asking you what flavour you'd like.

It makes "home" sound so provisional - and almost as if it were something you could choose.

The thing is, even though my default answer to this question is always "Singapore", a more accurate answer would be that it's always "somewhere else". My views about home are complex and conflicting, partly because I've not spent more than six years in a row in a single country.

Because of my father's various job postings, I spent most of my childhood and adolescence zig-zagging across Asia - between Singapore, Shanghai and Bangkok.

I was born in Singapore, then shifted to Shanghai as an infant, before returning to Singapore for primary school and then spending most of my secondary and junior college years in Bangkok. Mere weeks after our relocation to Singapore after five years in Bangkok, I packed my bags again and flew off to the UK for four years of university. I've since returned to Singapore for the foreseeable future.

Right now, there are more than 200,000 Singaporeans living overseas. For most of my life, I was among them, sometimes seeing myself as a versatile, privileged "citizen of the world" and, at other times, feeling like a disaffected nomad wondering if there was any place I truly belonged.

It's safe to say that my feelings about Singapore were a lot less complicated when I was a child. At kindergarten in Shanghai, I remember bragging to my friends that I was from Singapore.

Even as a kid living overseas, I knew Singapore was clean, safe and "very developed". And on our living room bookshelf was one heavy, important-looking volume, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas. He built Singapore, my parents would tell me, my younger self, meanwhile, picturing a man in yellow boots heaving huge piles of sand into the sea with a shovel.

Singapore, as far as I knew, was home, even though I didn't actually live there. And when we moved back, I remember proudly learning to recite the pledge and then, later, throwing myself with enthusiasm into my primary school's annual National Day song-and-dance concert.

But after years inside the local system and even more time in international classrooms looking homeward, my feelings about Singapore and home are so much harder to articulate now. Most of my close friends are scattered across the globe. And as someone who eschews Singlish and finds it annoying when people "chope" seats with tissue paper, I don't always feel like a "typical Singaporean", whatever that means.

Writing this column has been a struggle, given the contradictory feelings I have about this country - sometimes I feel like a magnet that's been flung around so many times it's lost all sense of north and south.

"Home", for me, is mostly a matter of circumstance, a combination of all the places where my fondest memories happen to be entwined.

What endears Singapore to me is my family who happen to live here, and the little things: exhaust fumes and the scent of rain-soaked earth over the hum of early morning traffic.

But one can have many homes, many loves. I remember the unexpected feeling of warmth I got from a Chinese saleswoman at Isetan whose mainland accent brought me back to my early childhood in Shanghai. When I began my studies in Britain, it was not Singapore but Bangkok that I missed: the oily stench of the Chao Phraya River, the tangled wire and hubbub of Charoen Krung Road.

My identification with the Singaporean label tends to be amplified according to my distance from it, gravitating to it when I am abroad and disassociating myself from it when I am "home".

I felt prone to asserting my Asian "identity" in obscure ways when I was a university student in the UK. Even though I seldom listened to Hokkien and Thai songs in Asia, I would play them in my UK dorm because there was something oddly gratifying about listening to a language no one around me could understand.

But making it your habit to be always "different" can devolve into a puerile practice of resisting and reacting to things - wallowing in self-indulgent melancholia or constantly trying to be (in the words of American poet Frank O'Hara) "a step away from them".

In the UK, I spent a lot of time in the company of Singaporeans, but back home, I feel a constant urge to recoil from the familiar. Maybe it's because my senses are sharpened here - it almost feels too close, too real, like the excruciating wisdom teeth extractions I got to enjoy during my annual trips back home.

When I got back to Singapore last summer, I experienced flashes of irritation at the smallest things.

Funny how what you readily accept as local quirks in a foreign land - like rude people or inefficient systems - can grate on you when they happen at home. You know that like yourself, they are here to stay.

And call me an escapist, but I find a lot of Singaporean literature claustrophobic precisely because it feels so familiar.

The stark realist themes that define our literary landscape and their litany of oh-so-relatable complaints can seem rather discomforting - a bit like the way you feel when you listen to a recording of yourself speaking.

But it's silly, isn't it, to construct an identity, a life out of always wanting to run away, or to be somewhere else or simply different from everyone else. To inhabit a kind of middle ground without committing to any one place, constantly emphasising your difference from the other side.

"Thresholds are safe," English writer Kate Atkinson observed in 1995, "but unfortunately, you can't stay on them for ever".

Perhaps instead of sitting around in dim interiors, looking out of windows and dreaming of elsewheres, I ought to step over the threshold - more a mental one, at this point - and plant myself in the present.

Life, after all, is what you make it. It's time to pick up the shovel and construct something meaningful - a kind of "home", maybe, where I give more of myself and reach out to the people around me.

•#opinionoftheday is a new column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'No more running away, it's time to embrace 'home''. Print Edition | Subscribe